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By Sean Gorman August 13, 2012

Bob McDonnell says Obama is "unwinding" welfare-to-work requirements

Gov. Bob McDonnell is accusing the Obama administration of reversing federal welfare laws that require people who receive public aid to be on a path towards finding a job.

McDonnell has joined a number of Republicans -- including presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- in criticizing the administration’s announcement in July that states will be allowed to seek waivers from welfare-to-work requirements passed in 1996 under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Those reforms tied block welfare grants for states to work requirements and limit the amount of time a person can receive benefits.

"By unwinding our nation’s welfare-to-work requirements, the Obama administration is making a tragic mistake," McDonnell wrote in an August 6 op-ed that ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is posted on McDonnell’s political website and Romney’s campaign website.

Is Obama "unwinding" those requirements? We checked.

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the governor, backed McDonnell’s statement by citing editorials that take aim at the administration’s decision. Martin also emailed us an Associated Press article saying the White House has  "quietly opened the door for states to seek major changes in how they meet federal welfare-to-work requirements for some of their poorest residents."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the waiver program on July 12, saying exemptions would be granted  to allow states to "test alternative and innovative strategies, policies and procedures that are designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families."

The directive said  "HHS will only consider approving waivers relating to the work participation requirements that make changes intended to lead to more effective means of meeting the work goals of TANF."  The department said if a test project does not result in improved employment for welfare recipients, the waiver could be revoked.

George Sheldon, an assistant secretary at HHS, said in a July 12 letter to state human services officials that the administration’s move stemmed from a February 28, 2011 presidential memorandum that called on federal agencies to work with state governments to remove regulatory barriers that undermine federal programs.

As a result, Sheldon said HHS held talks with state, local and tribal officials about many issues -- including TANF.

"During those consultations, many jurisdictions expressed a strong interest in greater flexibility in TANF and indicated that greater flexibility could be used by states to improve program effectiveness," Sheldon said. "We also heard concerns that some TANF rules stifle innovation and focus attention on paperwork rather than helping parents find jobs."

The move caused an uproar among conservatives who argued the change was a bid to sneak around welfare-to-work requirements.

Romney went a step further in a TV ad that started running last week in Virginia and other swing states, saying, under Obama’s plan, "you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check." Our colleagues at PolitiFact National rated that claim Pants on Fire in an August 7 story.

Politifact noted that through the changes, the administration is hoping to make the welfare-to-work efforts more successful -- not end them altogether. examined that ad’s claim that the adminstration’s decision would "gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements." It concluded, "The plan does neither of those things."

It should be noted that the Republican governors of Utah and Nevada have expressed interest in obtaining waivers from TANF requirements in order to boost employment for welfare recipients.

"Nevada is very interested in working with your staff to explore program waivers that have the potential to encourage more cooperative relationships among state agencies engaged in economic stimulus through job creation, employment skill attainment and gainful employment activities," Michael Willden, director of Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services said in an August 2, 2011 letter to HHS.

Mary-Sarah Kinner, a spokeswoman for Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, said that although state officials discussed the possibility of a waiver, the state never requested one and doesn’t intend to.

But Utah officials have asked for a waiver.

"Utah’s goal through all of this is to increase work-related outcomes, and we felt that this waiver would better allow us to achieve that goal," said Nic Dunn, a spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

A final note: There’s a dispute about whether the administration is allowed to provide these waivers. Although HHS says it can, Republicans maintain the 1996 law doesn’t allow the executive branch to grant waivers to the work rules.

Our Ruling

McDonnell said the Obama administration is  "unwinding" welfare-to-work requirements.

But a new Obama program does not end welfare-to-work mandates. To the contrary, it strengthens the requirements by granting waivers to states seeking to make the work requirements more successful. The waivers would be granted to pilot programs that are individually evaluated; HHS is not proposing a blanket national change to welfare law.

We rate McDonnell’s statement False.

Our Sources

Gov. Bob McDonnell op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "McDonnell: Obama decree guts bipartisan consensus," August 6, 2012.

E-mail from Tucker Martin, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, August 10, 2012.

PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says Barack Obama’s plan for welfare reform: "They just send you your check," August 7, 2012.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Temporary Assistance for needy families information memorandum," July 12, 2012.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon, letter to state human services officials, July 12, 2012.

Washington Post, "Spin and Counterspin in the welfare debate," August 8, 2012., "Does Obama’s plan ‘gut welfare reform’?" August 9, 2012.

E-mail from Nic Dunn, associate director of communications for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, August 10, 2012.

Letter from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, July 16, 2012.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert news rlease, "Governor defense state flexibility to HHS," July 17, 2012.

Letter from Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael J. Willden to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 2, 2011.

Letter from Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius,  July 12, 2012.

Letter from the Utah Department of Workforce Services to the U.S. Department of Health and human Services, August 1, 2011.

E-mail from Mary-Sarah Kinner, press secretary for Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, August 9, 2012.

The Heritage Foundation, "Obama guts welfare reform," July 12, 2012.

The Hill, "Sebelius defends welfare changes," July 19, 2012.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "5 ways waivers will strengthen welfare reform," July 13, 2012.

Department of Health and Human Services, "What is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF)?" accessed August 10, 2012.

Associated Press, "Obama Administration opens door for states to seek major changes in welfare-to-work law," July 13, 2012.

Las Vegas Review-Journal, "Sandoval: Nevada didn’t ask for waiver on welfare program," August 8, 2012.

Salt Lake Tribune, "Utah sought welfare waiver that riled conservatives," July 17, 2012.

ABC News, "Upending Welfare Reform? Obama criticized for giving states more flexibility," July 13, 2012.

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